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Waiting on the Climate to Change

It’s Time to Take the Opportunity to Invest in Carbon Capture and Sequestration

We have the opportunity to develop technology that would create jobs, curb global warming, and reinforce our position as a global leader. Why aren’t we taking it?

A worker watches as coal bound for power plants is shoveled onto trucks at a mine in China. The Chinese company GreenGen recently announced plans to construct a coal-fired power plant that implements carbon-capture-and-sequestration technology. (AP/Ng Han Guan)
A worker watches as coal bound for power plants is shoveled onto trucks at a mine in China. The Chinese company GreenGen recently announced plans to construct a coal-fired power plant that implements carbon-capture-and-sequestration technology. (AP/Ng Han Guan)

The Chinese company GreenGen at the end of last year formally announced plans to construct a 250-megawatt plant in Tianjin, with the blessing of the Chinese government, that would incorporate carbon sequestration technology. One month later, in January, the United States Energy Department cancelled FutureGen, a partnership between the U.S. government and leading utility and mining companies that would have created a similar prototype coal plant capable of storing the carbon dioxide it produced underground through carbon capture and sequestration.

The United States still has some of the most advanced energy technologies in the world, but even the New York Times is now reporting that the United States is lagging behind in clean coal efforts and hasn’t done much to promote CCS since cancelling FutureGen. Advancing carbon-capture-and-sequestration technology, which would permanently store carbon dioxide produced by coal use underground, is particularly important for the United States since 37 percent of our energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are produced by coal use.

Widespread CCS deployment in the United States is essential to reducing our carbon emissions, and would encourage worldwide use of CCS technology. China and India are both heavy users of coal, and their emissions are expected to increase as energy consumption grows in response to continued economic development. Without leadership by the United States and other mature economies, adoption of advanced energy technologies in the developing world will lag, as countries such as India and China currently lack the political and economic incentive to curb emissions from coal-fired power plants.

While China and India may still be a few years behind the United States in terms of energy technologies now, climate change and carbon sequestration require thinking in decades and centuries. Both countries recognize the extraordinary long-term threat that global warming poses to their national security; climate change would seriously disrupt China’s already strained water resources; and climate change-induced flooding could displace populations in India and neighboring countries. As a result, both countries, particularly China, are aggressively researching CCS technologies. These technologies will be hugely valuable in the future if nations begin aggressively cutting their carbon dioxide emissions, as seems likely.

By failing to promote these technologies now, the United States not only misses an opportunity to protect the planet; it misses an opportunity to become a leader in a potentially enormous industry. That’s why the American government’s failure to seriously invest in the development of alternative energy technologies such as CCS is so alarming.

A series of successful CCS demonstration projects funded in part by the U.S. government would establish a clear technological path forward for coal, preserving its viability in a carbon-constrained world, and giving the utility industry confidence to invest substantial sums in new coal-fired power generation. But long-term planning requires support that only the U.S. government can provide. We should therefore start now with an aggressive program of demonstration projects, backed by adequate funding.

Where would this funding come from? This week, the Senate considers the Boxer-Warner-Lieberman Climate Security Act, which would establish a cap-and-trade system in which the bulk of emission allowances are auctioned to polluters. Under an auction approach, large-scale carbon emitters would need to purchase or otherwise obtain a permit, or allowance, for every ton of greenhouse gas they release. The resulting revenue could create a dedicated and dependable source of public financing to invest in the transition to the low-carbon economy.

The Climate Security Act would allocate over $15 billion in auction revenue to a front-loaded program to undertake 10-to-15 carbon capture and sequestration demonstration projects. The Act also includes an emission performance standard that requires all new coal plants to limit emissions to levels achievable through the best-performing sequestration technology available. Through these mechanisms, the act would provide a technology push for the development of technologies necessary to make carbon capture and sequestration competitive, and a market pull that would create the incentives that are necessary for the widespread commercial adoption of these technologies.

Promoting capital investment, increasing research and development funding, and reducing financial risk through smart public policies like loan guarantees, will leverage more rapid technological break throughs and encourage commercializa tion. These actions would help private industry achieve economies of scale and lower the costs of clean energy and energy-efficient products and services for consumers.

The United States has an opportunity to develop technologies that would create jobs, curb global warming, and reinforce America’s position as a global leader. Developing carbon-capture-and-sequestration technologies would propel America into the 21st century.

For more information on the Center for American Progress’ policies on carbon capture and sequestration, see:

· Global Warming and the Future of Coal

· Capturing the Energy Opportunity: Creating a Low-Carbon Economy

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